Photo: Lucky Business // Shutterstock
A staple upper-body exercise, the barbell bench press can be performed with the hands either slightly wider than or slightly less than shoulder-width apart to work different muscles. To better understand the benefits and potential drawbacks of each variation, three top personal trainers weigh in on what you should know about this tried-and-true move. (Note: if you're working out solo, here's what you need to know about how to bench press without a spotter.)
Wide-Grip Bench Press Benefits & Risks
Arguably one of the most popular strength-training exercises, the wide-grip bench press has been a regular in workout routines for decades, and with good reason. A study by the American Council on Exercise found this exercise to be one of the most effective moves for eliciting a high level of muscle activity in the pectoralis major (a.k.a. your pecs or chest), making it a superior targeted chest exercise compared with incline dumbbell flies or traditional pushups.
While the wide-grip bench press does effectively emphasize both the chest and the shoulders (specifically the anterior deltoid), Shana Verstegen, an ACE-certified personal trainer and TRX Master Trainer, reminds that safety is always key. "Personally I steer clear of the wide-grip bench press with my clients due to the risk of shoulder instability and pectoralis major rupture." Martin's concern over the risks outweighing the benefits is supported by a review of research published in the Strength and Conditioning Journal, which found that the amount of torque in the shoulders in nearly 1.5 times greater when performing a wide-grip bench press than a narrow-grip one, thereby increasing injury potential. (Related: Chest Workout: 6 Moves to Perk Up Your Boobs)
To reduce the risk of injury, move through the complete range of motion—both during the lower and lifting phase of the movement—with control, and heed Martin's advice and only lower the bar to three to four inches above the chest as opposed to completely lowering the bar to lightly touch the chest.
Close-Grip Bench Press Benefits & Risks
Adjusting the placement of the hands to just slightly less than shoulder-width apart (often called narrow-grip or close-grip) shifts the emphasis from the larger muscles of the torso to the smaller muscles of the arms, specifically the triceps and forearms. This makes proper alignment essential, says Jonathan Ross, international fitness educator and author of the book Abs Revealed: "Watch for excessive extension of the wrists in which the knuckles rock back toward the forearms."
While the narrow-grip bench press serves as an effective exercise for strengthening the upper arms while producing less strain on the shoulders, Ross notes that individuals with elbow, wrist, or shoulder concerns will likely find it to be more of a challenge. (And if you can't do it, no worries: it's not one of the only five exercises you really need.)
Which Bench Press Grip is Best: Wide or Narrow?
Your choice of grip is largely dependent on whether your focus is to strengthen predominantly the chest or the triceps, though there are other factors to consider as well. Don Bahneman, general manager and master trainer at VIDA Fitness in Washington, D.C., suggests considering your health history, desired fitness goals, and body awareness. "With flat bench lifts there is a need for good mobility in the shoulders as well as good scapular stability in order to reduce the potential for injury." (Try this mobility workout to prevent injury.) Bahneman adds that if the bench press is an exercise you're adamant about performing yet holding a straight bar results in discomfort, consider using dumbbells in lieu of a barbell and/or try performing this exercise using a bench inclined between 15 and 60 degrees.
While both variations of this move remain popular, Martin reminds that there are hundreds of pushing-based exercises to choose from (hello, push-ups!), and be sure to counter those movements with some pulling exercises (like a dumbbell back workout) to reduce the risk of injury and create a more well-rounded workout experience.